Prosecutor Narrows Focus on Rove Role in C.I.A. Leak
By DAVID JOHNSTON and RICHARD W. STEVENSON
WASHINGTON, Nov. 3 - The prosecutor in the C.I.A. leak case has narrowed his investigation of Karl Rove, the senior White House adviser, to whether he tried to conceal from the grand jury a conversation with a Time magazine reporter in the week before an intelligence officer's identity was made public more than two years ago, lawyers in the case said Thursday.
The special counsel, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, has centered on what are believed to be his final inquiries in the matter as to whether Mr. Rove was fully forthcoming about the belated discovery of an internal e-mail message that confirmed his conversation with the Time reporter, Matthew Cooper, to whom Mr. Rove had mentioned the C.I.A. officer.
Mr. Fitzgerald no longer seems to be actively examining some of the more incendiary questions involving Mr. Rove. At one point, he explored whether Mr. Rove misrepresented his role in the leak case to President Bush - an issue that led to discussions between Mr. Fitzgerald and James E. Sharp, a lawyer for Mr. Bush, an associate of Mr. Rove said.
Mr. Rove's lawyer, Robert D. Luskin, declined to discuss his client's legal status, but referred to a statement issued last week in which he expressed confidence that Mr. Fitzgerald would conclude that Mr. Rove had done nothing wrong.
Mr. Fitzgerald's spokesman, Randall Samborn, declined to discuss Mr. Rove's legal status. If nothing else, the uncertainty that continues to surround Mr. Rove's legal case has led to intense speculation about his standing within the White House. People with close ties to Mr. Bush and Republicans who work with officials in the top ranks of the White House staff said there had been no discussion about Mr. Rove stepping down if he is not indicted. They said that any serious consideration of how Mr. Rove should address his role in the case had been put off until after Mr. Fitzgerald completes his inquiry into Mr. Rove.
They were responding to an article on Thursday in The Washington Post, which reported that top White House aides were discussing Mr. Rove's future and that some of them doubted that Mr. Bush could put the leak case behind him as long as Mr. Rove remained in the administration.
Democratic leaders again on Thursday called for Mr. Rove's resignation, citing Mr. Bush's pledge to demand the highest ethical standards from his administration. And it came on top of public expressions of concern from a few Republicans outside the White House that Mr. Rove's involvement in the matter reflected badly on the president. The investigation and the indictment of I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, appear to have taken a continued toll on Mr. Bush's political standing. A CBS New poll released on Thursday put his job approval rating at 35 percent, the lowest of his presidency in that survey. Mr. Rove did not accompany Mr. Bush to South America on Thursday morning.
The leak case, which resulted last week in a five-count felony indictment against Mr. Libby, moved into formal court stages on Thursday when Mr. Libby was arraigned.
At the heart of the remaining investigation into Mr. Rove are the circumstances surrounding a July 11, 2003, telephone conversation between Mr. Rove and Mr. Cooper, who turned the interview to questions about a 2002 trip to Africa by Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former ambassador, who was sent by the C.I.A. to investigate claims that Iraq had sought to be buy uranium ore from Niger.
In his testimony to the grand jury in February 2004, Mr. Rove did not disclose the conversation with Mr. Cooper, saying later that he did not recall it among the hundreds of calls he received on a daily basis. But there was a record of the call. Mr. Rove had sent an e-mail message to Stephen J. Hadley, the deputy national security adviser, which confirmed the conversation.
One lawyer with a client in the case said Mr. Fitzgerald could be skeptical of Mr. Rove's account because the message was not discovered until the fall of 2004. It was at about the same time that Mr. Fitzgerald had begun to compel reporters to cooperate with his inquiry, among them Mr. Cooper. Associates of Mr. Rove said the e-mail message was not incriminating and was turned over immediately after it was found at the White House. They said Mr. Rove never intended to withhold details of a conversation with a reporter from Mr. Fitzgerald, noting that Mr. Rove had signed a waiver to allow reporters to reveal to prosecutors their discussions with confidential sources. In addition, they said, Mr. Rove testified fully about his conversation with Mr. Cooper - long before Mr. Cooper did - acknowledging that it was possible that the subject of Mr. Wilson's trip had come up.
It is now known that Mr. Fitzgerald and the grand jury have questioned Mr. Rove about two conversations with reporters. The first, which he admitted to investigators from the outset, took place on July 9, 2003, in a telephone call initiated by Robert D. Novak, the syndicated columnist. In a column about Mr. Wilson's trip four days after the call to Mr. Rove, Mr. Novak disclosed the identity of Mr. Wilson's wife, Valerie Wilson, a C.I.A. intelligence officer who was said by Mr. Novak to have had a role in arranging her husband's trip. Mr. Novak identified her as Valerie Plame, Ms. Wilson's maiden name.
In was in that conversation that Mr. Rove first learned the name of the C.I.A. officer from Mr. Novak, according to lawyers in the case. Mr. Rove testified that up until then he had heard only fragmentary information about her from reporters, the lawyers said.
Mr. Rove's second conversation with a reporter was with Mr. Cooper of Time on July 11, 2003. In that conversation, Mr. Rove did not mention Ms. Wilson's name, but, according to Mr. Cooper's account, Mr. Rove did say that she worked at the C.I.A., may have been responsible for sending her husband on the trip to Africa and worked on issues related to unconventional weapons.
In February 2004, when Mr. Rove testified about his conversations with reporters, he recalled the Novak conversation, but no other interviews with reporters - an omission that Mr. Fitzgerald has investigated as a possible false statement or perjury. Mr. Rove said he had forgotten the discussion with Mr. Cooper, the lawyers said.
Mr. Fitzgerald did not learn of the Cooper conversation until months later when a search of Mr. Rove's e-mails uncovered the e-mail that he had sent to Mr. Hadley. "Matt Cooper called to give me a heads-up that he's got a welfare reform story coming," Mr. Rove wrote in the message to Mr. Hadley that was first disclosed in July by the Associated Press.
"When he finished his brief heads-up he immediately launched into Niger," Mr. Rove wrote. "Isn't this damaging? Hasn't president been hurt? I didn't take the bait, but I said if I were him I wouldn't get Time far out on this."
It is not publicly known why Mr. Rove's e-mail message to Mr. Hadley was not turned over earlier, but a lawyer in the case said that White House documents were collected in response to several separate requests that may not have covered certain time periods or all relevant officials. Mr. Rove had no role in the search for documents, which was carried out by an administrative office in the White House.
Mr. Rove corrected his testimony in a grand jury appearance on Oct. 14, 2004, after which Mr. Luskin said Mr. Rove had answered all questions truthfully